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'Luv': '60s neuroses at Guild Hall theater

Kahan James, as Harry Berlin, and Jennifer Regan,

Kahan James, as Harry Berlin, and Jennifer Regan, as Ellen Manville, star in "Luv" at Guild Hall, East Hampton which runs through July 1, 2012. Credit: Gary Mamay

In 1964, the whole nation was neurotic. The presidential election, shrouded by JFK's recent assassination, would be remembered, in part, for a TV ad featuring a little girl, a flower and a mushroom cloud.

But that's no cause to jump off a bridge. The charged political atmosphere -- think 2012 in black and white -- was not part of the manic dialogue that drove Murray Schisgal's 1964 Broadway hit "Luv." The absurdist comedy -- we can't tell if it's pro- or anti-romance -- makes a comeback at Guild Hall's John Drew Theater after a frantic run-up to opening night.

Eight days before "Luv's" first preview, Ricardo Chavira of "Desperate Housewives" dropped out for personal reasons. He was to play the guy jumping off the bridge. Leaping into the role was Kahan James, evidently a quick learner. Nimble, too. "Luv," a vaudeville of neuroses, demands physical shtick. It's not easy to lapse into a catatonic state and make it funny. Besides, is suicide really a laughing matter? Director Lonny Price and his cast make a case.

The moment James staggers onstage, you know his character, Harry, is a desperado. A bridge railing anchors James Noone's desolation-row set with a beach in the foreground and, as backdrop, a Manhattan skyline of '64-ish images, Jackie Kennedy's among them. Harry is wild-eyed with intent to end it all. You can tell by the string, instead of a belt, upholding his trousers (costumes by Tracy Christensen).

Striding purposefully by as Harry peers into the watery abyss is his old college chum, dressed in a suit that only "Mad Men" losers would wear. As Milt, Robert Stanton talks Harry down by not letting him get a word in edgewise. He says love will save Harry. Love would save Milt if only his wife, Ellen, would divorce him so he could marry Linda. But what if Harry fell for Ellen and vice-versa? You see the ah-ha! in Stanton's eyes.

Jennifer Regan plays Ellen with a too-smart-for-her-own-skirt swagger that's both threatening and sexy. Will she save Harry? Will Milt find happiness with Linda? Will they live to see 1965? Act II upends all such questions. It's sandbox group therapy as they take turns at murder/suicide -- all but impossible for good swimmers.

Absurd and dated -- Ellen suggests Harry may be "queer" -- "Luv" is funnier than psychotherapy but not as funny as Woody Allen, who'd benefit most from a session.

WHAT "Luv"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, final show 2 p.m. July 1, Guild Hall's John Drew Theater, 158 Main St., East Hampton

TICKETS $40-$85, guildhall.org, 631-324-4050

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